The haunting of Oliver Jackson-Cohen: Inside The Invisible Man and Bly Manor star's year of horrors
Oliver Jackson-Cohen, star of The Invisible Man and The Haunting of Hill House, found himself in a ghost town back in March. It certainly looked like his London home, about a five-minute walk from Covent Garden, just not the one he remembered. It was almost like a veil had been draped over his reality. “During lockdown, it was kind of nuts,” he says on a September Zoom call in between puffs from a vape pen, a silver chain dangling atop a black crewneck. “You were allowed out for like an hour a day to do exercise. Just walking around the center of town, I'd never seen it like that. It just was completely dead.”
The same could be said of his schedule, which also had to be wiped clean as the model-turned-actor found himself tethered to his parents’ home. But it was a welcome change. “I'd been so manic,” he says. “This is good.”
Manic is putting it lightly. Jackson-Cohen, 33, son of English fashion designer Betty Jackson, first went to Australia in July 2019 for his role of Adrian Griffin, Elisabeth Moss’s onscreen tormenter in The Invisible Man, one of the first films to receive an early at-home release this year when the pandemic threw a wrench in Hollywood’s plans. The studio let him wrap production early on the project so he could make a pitstop back in the U.K. to change out his suitcase before boarding yet another flight to Vancouver, where Hill House creator Mike Flanagan set up shop with former cast members Victoria Pedretti, Henry Thomas, and Kate Siegel for The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second season in this Netflix horror anthology (out Oct. 9). After that, it was back to Invisible Man mode for a press tour, and then… nothing.
In the spirit of keeping busy, Jackson-Cohen tried on many different hats over the first few months of lockdown. One was “DIY man,” he says, sitting at a table that he constructed in front of a wall that he painted. Another was baker, but that fad lasted only a few days. So, he turned to clearing out cupboards. “I found all the folders with all my scripts from Bly. I opened it up and there were all these notes from the kids.” Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth — who play Flora and Miles, two haunted children in the Turn of the Screw-inspired season — would draw everyone in the cast cards on set. “Ben used to write me these notes: ‘To my friend, Oliver. You win the award of best friend of the day.’ They are just the sweetest, sweetest kids.”
There's clearly a lot of love in and around this show, even before the little ones joined. Hill House, which premiered in 2018, quickly became an obsession for Netflix subscribers. Viewers were captivated by the story of the Crain family, inspired by Shirley Jackson's novel, as they each grappled with the trauma of losing their mother during their stay in a haunted house.
Jackson-Cohen portrayed Luke Crain, the heroin-addicted twin brother of Pedretti's Nell. It was the first time he felt like he could put himself into a character. Not that he's had a heroin addiction. It was more about Luke's emotional trauma and childhood that he understood well. ″I'm 6'3'' and, you know, big,″ Jackson-Cohen says, slipping into a pretend monster voice to emphasize that last word. ″I think people assume I am a jock or whatever it is that people assume, and I've never, ever related to those types of people. I'm actually quite a sensitive, emotional man. So, finding characters to play like that when you are 6'3'' and you are seen a certain way is quite a challenge.″
Jackson-Cohen remembers one of his first roles in the 2010 movie Going the Distance, where he played a charming bartender as a romantic temptation for Drew Barrymore's Erin, who struggled to maintain her long-distance relationship. Though he looks back fondly on all the fun he had making that film, he says, ″Luke was the first character [where] I didn't have to be the guy from Going the Distance. I didn't have to be those things. I could just be myself and be vulnerable and be all of the things that I feel all the time. It was quite freeing in a way to play a character like that.″
The Hill House cast just hoped the story they were telling, which wasn't your run-of-the-mill jump-scare show (despite a few choice moments), would connect with audiences. It did, though it didn't fully hit Jackson-Cohen until he and Pedretti were standing before a hall filled with fans at Brazil's Comic-Con. ″It was just nuts for two months,″ he recalls of the hype. When Netflix decided they wanted to do another season, Jackson-Cohen was one of the first people Flanagan called before pitching the studio on a new story, one that remixed various stories from author Henry James' horror repertoire.
″I kind of signed up based on this phone call,″ he says. ″There were so many different iterations of how it was going to play out. We weren’t clear on who I would play.″
Bly Manor stars Pedretti as Dani Clayton, an American who takes a job in England as the new au pair to two children who are still recovering from the deaths of their parents and their previous caregiver. The manor in Bly, a more inviting locale than the titular spot from Hill House, comes with a whole new array of ghosts. In one early draft, Jackson-Cohen was to play the gardener. ″It was an iteration where Victoria and I were going to play lovers,″ he remembers. ″And then I think Netflix was like, 'No, that’s a bit weird seeing as [you played] twins.'″ By the time he flew to Los Angeles to hear Flanagan's new pitch, complete with pictures, his role turned into the villain: Peter Quint, a character lifted from The Turn of the Screw and a business associate of the children's emotionally distant uncle Henry (Henry Thomas).
This marked another rarity for Jackson-Cohen: he sat down with Flanagan to conceptualize their iteration of Peter together. ″I said, very early on, we can't play him as a villain,″ the actor explains. ″It was a similar conversation that director Leigh [Whannell] and I had on Invisible Man. We didn't want him to be the black mustache-twirling [guy]. I think the same thing applied with Peter. Mike and I were both really interested in blurring the lines. What Peter does in Bly is toxic. It is about masculinity and it is about ownership and it's about possession. I kept on saying to Mike, he's a little boy that's really badly hurt and he's put on all of these masks in order to appear to be this thing.″
Jackson-Cohen equally finds Peter interesting in relation to Luke and the idea of choice. ″Luke chose to be good,″ he adds. ″He had a will to be good. Peter is struggling.″
It's characters like these that drew Jackson-Cohen into horror in the first place. Beneath their scary stories, Hill House was about grief and familial loss, The Invisible Man was about domestic abuse, and Bly Manor is about love in all its forms. ″I don't think it’s necessarily an active decision to want to be part of the genre, but it's just where they've been the most interesting stories to tell recently.″
As Netflix prepares to debut all nine episodes of Bly Manor, Jackson-Cohen's horror streak — and the privilege of doing nothing in lockdown — has already ended. The actor is now currently in Greece where Maggie Gyllenhaal is directing him in The Lost Daughter alongside Oscar winner Olivia Colman, Normal People's Paul Mescal, and Suspiria's Dakota Johnson. Jackson-Cohen plays Johnson's onscreen husband in a story, he says, ″about motherhood and what that means.″ By early next year, COVID willing, he'll then be filming the period piece Mr. Malcolm's List with costars Constance Wu and Sam Heughan.
″There is so much content that's made, and so much of the stuff that crosses my desk is...″ He pauses to consider his next words. ″Trash. So, it is quite hard. You got to mine through a lot of stuff, but then when you do find that one thing, it can be so incredible creatively. I'm doing these next two [movies], but after this, I have no idea."
Here's hoping he finds a new hobby.